Thum Ping Tjin
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Thum Ping Tjin
Thum delivering a lecture at the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore on 17 September 2013
|Born||17 December 1979|
|Other names||PJ Thum|
|Alma mater||University of Oxford, Harvard University|
|Organization||Project Southeast Asia, University of Oxford|
Thum Ping Tjin (Chinese: 覃炳鑫; pinyin: Tán Bǐng Xīn) (born 17 December 1979), also known as PJ Thum, is a Singaporean historian and former national swimmer. He is a research fellow at the University of Oxford and the coordinator of Project Southeast Asia, a collective of scholars of Southeast Asia at the university. The first Singaporean to swim the English Channel, he represented his country in four swim races at the 1996 Summer Olympics.
Born on 17 December 1979 in Singapore, Thum received his early education at five of the Anglo-Chinese Schools. He went to Harvard College at the age of 16 and graduated in 2000 with a bachelor's degree in East Asian studies. A Rhodes Scholar, he attended Hertford College at the University of Oxford, where he read for a second bachelor's degree in modern history and politics.
In early 2005, Thum was a teacher at Anglo-Chinese School (International) in Singapore. He later returned to Oxford on a Commonwealth Scholarship, where he completed a DPhil in modern history at Hertford College. From 2006 to 2007, he was also a warden at Frewin Hall, Brasenose College.
From 2012 to 2014, Thum was a research fellow at the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore (NUS). Since 2014, Thum has been a research associate at Oxford's Centre for Global History; a fellow of Green Templeton College; and the coordinator of Project Southeast Asia, an Oxford initiative to expand its range of scholarly expertise on Southeast Asia. In 2015, Thum was elected as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum.
In March 2018, Al Jazeera interviewed Thum for the documentary "The House That Lee Built"; Thum stated when he was a research fellow at NUS, he published and gave lectures about his research, which showed that Singapore's founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew "had lied about his use of detention without trial from the 1960s onward." According to Thum, shortly afterwards a senior staff member at NUS privately informed him that he "would never be able to work in Singapore as an academic... again". When asked about this, a NUS spokesperson declined to comment.
During his studies at the University of Oxford, Thum captained the university's swimming team and earned two Blues times. In 2002, he retired from the Singaporean national swimming team but continued to represent Oxford in swimming.
On 6 August 2005, Thum swam solo across the English Channel in 12 hours and 24 minutes, and became the first Singaporean to do so. While preparing for his Channel swim, Thum also set a world record when he swam around the Rock of Gibraltar in 2 hours and 52 minutes.
Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods
In March 2018, in response to a call from the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods for submissions, Thum submitted a paper arguing that any legislation by the Singapore Parliament against online falsehood must also apply to the Singapore government. He cited the government's use of detention without trial between 1963 and 1988 during Operation Coldstore and Operation Spectrum. While the government argued that the detainees were part of a communist plot or Marxist conspiracy to subvert the state, Thum claimed that the government has never produced any evidence to substantiate its claims nor have any detainees been brought to trial on the charges they were detained under. Thum argued that these justifications were false claims made by politicians of the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) for the purpose of political gain.
On 29 March, the last day of the sitting of the Select Committee, Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam questioned Thum about a paper he published in 2013 regarding Operation Coldstore and the formation of Malaysia. He said Thum fell short of the standards of an objective historian, saying that he "ignores evidence which you don't like, you ignore and suppress what is inconvenient and in your writings you present quite an untrue picture". Thum countered that his paper had been peer-reviewed and that no historian had stepped forward to contradict the central thrust of his work.
Channel NewsAsia and The Straits Times reported that Thum admitted that there were parts of the paper which he could have worded better, that some of his statements were misleading, and that he had not read nor bother to quote many of the accounts of some communist leaders as he felt that those accounts were unreliable. These included the first-hand accounts of Chin Peng, the leader of the Malayan Communist Party. However, in a subsequent follow-up submission to the Select Committee, Thum claimed that the reports took his words out of context, arguing that "the crux of my original submission was not addressed in the discussion", "the fundamental arguments... were not raised nor challenged", and "at no point did I accept that any part of my article was inaccurate or misleading". He insisted that his "overall point" in his article "that Operation Coldstore was fundamentally motivated by political, not security, reasons, stands".
Civil activists groups Community Action Network, Function 8, and Maruah, as well as activists Kirsten Han, Terry Xu, and Thum himself, criticised the open hearings, accusing the Select Committee of failing to adhere to its own terms of reference, and claiming the hearings had not been conducted in an open or consultative manner.
A letter signed by 170 academics was submitted to Chong, criticising the hearing as an attempt to attack and destroy Thum's credibility and discredit his research, with the effect of stifling the freedom of expression and academic freedom in Singapore. A letter from six of Thum's colleagues at the University of Oxford's Project Southeast Asia also expressed concerns about how Thum was treated at the hearing, saying that Thum's research, which Shanmugam had criticised, had "already met the rigorous standards of examination at Oxford and peer review by fellow historical experts on the region". The letter also expressed concerns about the "implications for academic freedom, and for freedom of expression in Singapore", saying that the hearing "appears designed to intimidate those who seek to publish the truth".
In response, Chong argued that it was Thum who had chosen to make a political point in his written submission to the Select Committee, and that while Thum was entitled to his views, he must expect to be questioned about his claims. He also characterised Thum's submission as a "political piece" rather than an "academic dissertation".
Chong also released a report based upon attached emails between two trustees of Project Southeast Asia that were inadvertently copied to the Select Committee, showing email discussions between Thum and Philip Kreager from the University of Oxford's Project Southeast Asia regarding the drafting and sharing of a letter in support of Thum. Chong accused Thum of having "engineered" the open letter in support of himself, as well as getting Kraeger to canvass for support on his behalf. Chong alleged "a coordinated attempt, with foreign actors involved, to try to influence and subvert our parliamentary processes". Kreager called Chong's statement "clearly preposterous", insisting that the emails were merely to "exchange views", and accusing Chong of imagining a "conspiracy".
On 13 April, the Parliament Secretariat wrote to Thum to clarify his academic credentials following his claims to be a "research fellow in history" in his submission and holding "a visiting professorship in anthropology at Oxford University" during his oral testimony. Following media enquiries, the University of Oxford replied that Thum was a research associate at the School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography.
On 11 April 2018, the Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority (ACRA) notified Thum and Kirsten Han, an activist and freelance journalist, that their 18 February 2018 application to register a private company "OSEA Private Limited" was rejected. ACRA released a press statement which stated that the company was "clearly political in nature" and contrary to Singapore's national interests. According to The Straits Times, "this is the first publicised case of a proposed incorporated entity having its application rejected due to foreign funding for domestic political activities."
OSEA was to be a wholly owned subsidiary of Observatory Southeast Asia Limited (OSEA-UK). ACRA noted that, in his application, Thum had stated that OSEA-UK has received a US$75,000 grant from the Foundation Open Societies Institute (FOSI), a charitable foundation closely associated with the Open Society Foundations (OSF), which was founded by George Soros. In their press release, ACRA argued that "OSF, founded and led by George Soros, was expressly established to pursue a political agenda the world over, and has a history of involvement in the domestic politics of sovereign countries". ACRA cited how the OSEA application proposed to organise "Democracy Classroom" sessions, workshops and events in Singapore. OSEA-UK rejected the accusations as "unfounded", insisting that New Naratif was supported by revenue from its members, and denying that FOSI or OSF was involved in its editorial decisions or daily operations.
On 1 May 2018, Select Committee chairman Charles Chong noted that Thum and Philip Kreager – both trustees of Oxford's Project Southeast Asia – were directors of OSEA-UK on the British government's company registry.
Meeting with Mahathir Mohamad
On 30 August 2018, Thum, Tan Wah Piow and others met Mahathir Mohamad, the Prime Minister of Malaysia, and asked him to take a lead role in promoting democracy in Southeast Asia. This prompted Seah Kian Peng, a Singaporean Member of Parliament, to post on Facebook that "it appears quite clear to me that Thum does not wish Singapore well"; some people also called Thum a "traitor" online. Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam commented that to invite "a foreign politician, to intervene in our domestic politics ... is an absolute no no". Thum rejects the notion that he is a traitor.
Thum, Kirsten Han and Jolovan Wham, who also met Mahathir, sent letters of complaint to Lee Hsien Loong, the Prime Minister of Singapore, denouncing the conduct of Seah, who is also a member of the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods, for making serious accusations without substantiation. Han responded that Seah's Facebook post "dog-whistled to online trolls and unleashed abusive online harassment – although he's since called for civility, he has not retracted his claims nor provided evidence, and his allegations continue to provide fodder for personal attacks". The trio also urged Charles Chong, the chairperson of the Select Committee, to "take leadership in promoting responsible behaviour and engaging in evidence-based discussion".
The Ministry of Home Affairs replied to Thum's letter: "We can have vigorous debates within Singapore about our own affairs. But you cross a red line when you invite foreign powers or foreign leaders into Singapore politics."
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